'Like a House on Fire' Is Carried by a Star-Making Lead Performance Directed by Jesse Noah Klein

Starring Sarah Sutherland, Jared Abrahamson, Margaux Vaillancourt, Hubert Lenoir
'Like a House on Fire' Is Carried by a Star-Making Lead Performance Directed by Jesse Noah Klein
Nothing much really happens in one of the most striking scenes in Like a House on Fire. The protagonist, Dara (Sarah Sutherland), sits on a park bench in a summer twilight, a soft breeze wafting through branches, the sound of cicadas heavy as humidity, turning the glowing night into a soft fabric you feel on your skin. It's a delicate scene, but powerful nonetheless, because you will swear you can smell the sweetness of the grass surrounding Dara. Like a House on Fire excels in this manner of character exposition by way of sensual immersion and aesthetic inflection. As a character sketch of a woman with a fraught relationship with motherhood, and as a display of Sutherland's simmering talent, this movie is beyond reproach — and if we ignore the other lukewarm performances, Like a House on Fire is just this side of perfect.

Written and directed by Montreal-based filmmaker Jesse Noah Klein (We're Still Together), the film stars Sutherland as a young mother who has returned to her estranged husband Danny (Jared Abrahamson) and four-year-old daughter Isabel (Margaux Vaillancourt) after having spent two years away from them, without contact, due to postpartum depression.

The film begins with Dara's return from a stay at a mental health facility. She is plagued by the trauma of her own mother having abandoned her as a child, and fears that leaving to seek help in the way that she did will be read as abandonment by Isabel. When she goes to Danny's home, her old home, she finds out that he's moved on: his girlfriend Therese (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) is seven months pregnant and Isabel, with no memory of Dara, calls Therese mom. What follows is attempt after attempt on Dara's part to convince Danny to let her be Isabel's mom, and attempts to convince her family that she isn't like her mother. The only person who doesn't judge her by her past is a college student who befriends her, Jordan (musician Hubert Lenoir), at the park at twilight.

The second most powerful scene in the movie comes in the second act. Dara has had an accident at Isabel's birthday party and Danny is furious (in a stoic way), threatening to keep Isabel from Dara. After having negotiated entry into Isabel's life as an "aunt," Dara is faced once again with losing her child. She negotiates frantically with Danny — for access, love and sympathy. Danny thinks Dara hasn't changed, that she's still "crazy" and will leave Isabel again, and Dara tries to change his mind. She pleads and begs, telling him that she will live in the walls of his house, that she is tiny and will take up no more space than a kitchen floor tile. "I'll be so good I promise," Dara says, the tenor of her voice and the tears in her eyes anticipating disaster. This is a key scene in the movie for how it displays Sutherland's emotional prowess as an actress. She gasps for breath, hoping with all her might that Danny will let her stay. Her performance deftly speaks of a desperation like drowning in the vastest body of water imaginable; in the arch of her eyebrows, you feel her visceral longing, and her pain at having left a child she's supposed to love.

It's a shame that the other performances don't match up to Sutherland's. In particular, Abrahamson's subdued, inexpressive portrayal of Danny means that his character doesn't have much chemistry with Dara. The only character with whom Sutherland's Dara has a convincing relationship is Jordan, who's as lost and confused as she is. Lenoir brings an aloof sweetness to the ennui-soaked college student trope; he makes Dara spaghetti and slow dances with her in his room; he is gentle, kind, endlessly likeable, and fleshed out. A larger role would have been welcome.

As it stands, Like a House on Fire excels as a character study of a woman figuring out what motherhood looks like for her in face of her mental illness. It has that sometimes frantic, sometimes futile search for meaning that Barbara Loden's Wanda made famous. Sarah Sutherland is a force to behold as Dara, which is paradoxical because in voice and movement Dara is quiet, shy and self-effacing. Her soft speech is reminiscent of Angelina Jolie's cautiously contained and whispering Vanessa in By the Sea, teetering politely on the edge of a breakdown. On an aesthetic level, Klein succeeds in conveying the grounded-ness Dara practices and that she undoubtedly worked on in group therapy. He gets us to feel the elements as Dara feels them, as her hands brush over hand railings or pluck tunes on a piano. Klein's atmosphere is very tactile and is a perfect anchor for the careening drama of the plot. 

Like a House on Fire will make you fall in love with Dara, even as she begs everyone else in her life to love her back. This is a movie about doing what you think is right — as a daughter, wife and mother. But just as Danny is confused about why Dara wears the same flowery yellow dress everyday (because she thinks that's how a mother ought to dress), this film teaches us that reality can't ever meet expectations, and doing what you think is right — whether it be buying the perfect toy for your kid or exploding with enough love for your ex-husband that you weep — sometimes isn't enough. There is a way to make amends, this movie seems to say, but forcing people to love you can't be it.

Like a House on Fire is out now on VOD. (Entract Films)